Watching a sparrow hawk on her bird table as a child inspired Layla Bennett to launch Hawksdrift, which uses birds of prey to manage gulls. Maria McGeoghan finds out more about her plans to grow the business.
Layla Bennett’s face lights up at the mere mention of birds of prey. It’s a love affair that goes back to when she was just three, and has been a big part of her life ever since. She’s now a successful business woman with a growing company and a team of 39 falcons trained to deter gulls from buildings up and down the UK. Based in Powys, Hawksdrift offers a wide range of bird scaring, proofing and cleaning techniques and it all started with just one falcon – and a lot of ambition.
After leaving home at 16 to make her way in the world, Bennett’s story is one of triumph over adversity, sheer determination and unshakable belief in herself. She was born and brought up in the Dernol Valley in Mid Wales with her elder sister.
“I always loved animals,” admits Bennett, 32. “My mum tells this story of me being three looking up and saying ‘There’s a red kite’. I was only just about able to walk and talk.”
When she was 11 or 12 she built a bird table with her dad and used to look out of the front window to see who was flying in and feeding while she was waiting for the school bus. “I made a note of every bird,” she remembers. “I think I once saw a green woodpecker.
“Every now and then one particular bird would come to the table from behind the house. It was a sparrow hawk and I always thought ‘She’s here’.
“Sometimes she would get another bird and sometimes she wouldn’t. I once saw her tear a sparrow apart.
“She was brutal but beautiful. She had bright orange eyes, which means she was an older bird. They start out yellow.
“I suppose she became a role model for me. She was brutal, efficient, successful, powerful and feared by the other birds. Everyone else had the Spice Girls. “She came for two years and then stopped, and by then I was beginning to think that boys were a bit more interesting.”
After a falling out with her parents, Bennett quit school at 16 and left home. “I ran away from home and stayed away for ten years,” she says reflectively. “We’re talking again now. I got a falconry job in the summer holidays and loved it so much I realised I wanted to be a falconer.
“My parents wanted me to be vet. I worked as a barmaid, a waitress, cleaning, shearing and lambing just to get by.” She got her first gull job using one hawk at a British steel plant. “Everyone wanted to see the bird, and I was a young girl, so people remembered me,” she recalls.
Growing in confidence and experience, Bennett was just 17 when she applied for a contract at a BP plant even though she was
“I should have been 18, and I looked 12,” she says. “I got the contract even though I wasn’t old enough to be on the site. Those were the days when photo ID wasn’t that important.”
The contract lasted for a year before the site was shut down and she carried on doing shows with her falcon, children’s parties and was still waitressing and working as a barmaid to make ends meet.
Bennett then started to make enough money to call it a ‘proper job’ and her best friend, Mike Brown, came up with the name ‘Hawksdrift’ for her company as a nod to the Welsh involvement in the famous battle of Rorke’s Drift featured in the film Zulu. “I wanted the name to have a Welsh element that was more than a red dragon,” she says. “I love the name.”
Slowly but surely her business grew by word of mouth and in 2009 she had two employees – one based in North Wales. And then, out of the blue, Bennett was nominated for, and won, the Powys Young Entrepreneurship Award. “I was 25 and I really didn’t expect it,” she says. “I had a lot of competition because Mid Wales is very diverse. There are a lot of entrepreneurs here. I think it’s something to do with the space and beauty.”
To enjoy that rural beauty to the full, Bennett decided to buy a field in Powys where she was allowed to pitch a caravan and run her business. “Remember when banks used to lend money?” she laughs.
“The deposit was £4,500 – I used my credit card to pay it – and the land was £40,000. I’ll never forget that it was £479 a month that I just had to find. I was allowed to live there in a caravan. Powys County Council has always been really supportive of business.”
But living in a caravan with no water, electricity, or phone brought its own special kind of problems. “Everything was miles away,” she says. “I went to bed in all my clothes as I couldn’t afford gas bottles at first and the cost of installing electricity was thousands and thousands. I used to take my toothpaste to bed to stop it freezing.”
She’s still there 10 years on – even though it now features a flat screen telly and a log burner – while she is having a house built on her own patch of land. She shows me a picture of it on her phone, proud and excited that she will soon be living under a proper roof.
“It’s all watertight now and I can’t wait to get in,” she grins. “I wander around it and I still can’t believe that it’s all going to be mine.”
Another out-of-the-blue incident helped Bennett on the road to success when she was called by production staff on the BBC Dragons’ Den show and invited to appear. “I was working on a job at BAE Systems in Wharton when I got the call,” she recalls. “I didn’t believe it was the BBC at first.
“I didn’t think I was doing anything unique. Birds have been used in this way since 2,000BC. I thought it might be a competitor trying to find out more about my business numbers so I asked them to email me back.”
Auditions in Manchester followed and a few months later she found herself in front of the imposing row of Dragons with her mantra “Don’t argue and don’t cry” running around in her head. “It was tough,” Bennett admits. “I thought they would be all smiles until the cameras started rolling but they were really serious.
“It’s not really an old warehouse, it’s a studio. And the stairs you come up are different to the ones you go down.
“I didn’t think for one minute that I would get any investment.” But that determination to succeed must have shone through and Bennett was one of the few entrepreneurs to get a cash award when Duncan Bannatyne offered her £50,000 for a 25% stake in her company. “He was really charming,” she says. “We bought some new vehicles with the money, and got an accountant, but it didn’t go that far really. I paid it back two-and-a-half years later.”
Bennett is passionate about looking after working animals and part of her profits go to the Brooke Foundation, a charity for working horses, donkeys and mules in some of the poorest communities in the world.
“I want to have an effect on working animals’ welfare,” she explains. “Animals that work for us deserve a great deal of respect.
“People have tried to replicate what a hawk can do but none of the methods work. You can’t kid a gull. And whatever you read, birds of prey are exceptionally hard to look after.
“I think it is appropriate that my working animals can help working animals around the world. It makes me happy. Any bird that comes to me has a home for life.”
And what a home it is. Her 39 birds – soon to be 40 – live in the lap of luxury with a colour TV for company and a penchant for watching David Attenborough wildlife programmes. “They live for 20 to 25 years,” Bennett explains. “They all have names and I’ve just got a new one who is called Tom after Tom Jones. He’s gorgeous, just like Tom Jones.”
Hawksdrift now has a forecast annual turnover of £500,000, and eight employees around the UK, from Somerset to North Wales, with more plans for growth. The company has expanded its services to include bird proofing, netting, abseiling and cleaning up bird fouling as well as the traditional hawk business.
More awards have followed for Bennett, including a young entrepreneur award and woman of achievement prize, and she started the new year being named ‘Business Wales Mentee of the Year’ working with her mentor Adrian May who was named ‘Business Mentor of the Year’. Bennett’s advice for anyone wanting to start their own business is typically down to earth and borne of experience. “You don’t need money to start a business,” she says.
“I’m lucky that I didn’t have money. It would have gone on posh vans, uniforms and business cards.
“A penny makes a pound. Be as honest as the day is long and you’ll have very long days.
“And always answer the phone with a happy voice. No-one wants to work with a misery.”
And the future? “Well, I’ve got a new boyfriend,” she says. “He’s called Falconer…”